b. 25/09/1921 Sterling City, Texas. d. 18/03/1943 over Vegesack, Germany.
DATE OF MOH ACTION: 18/03/1943 over Vegesack, Germany.
Jack was born Sept. 25, 1921, in Sterling City, Texas, to parents Rhude Mark and Avis. He had two brothers; Mark, who was older, and younger brother Harold. Jack graduated from San Angelo High School. He enrolled at San Angelo Business College before enlisting in the Army on June 12, 1940.
After serving for a few months at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Jack learned that Mark, who had also enlisted, had transferred to the Army Air Corps. Jack followed suit, and they both began training as bombardiers in the same unit. The younger Mathis was commissioned as a second lieutenant on July 4, 1942. About two months later, he was sent to England to serve with the 8th Air Force as a bombardier for the 303rd Bomb Group’s 359th Bomb Squadron. Mark was sent elsewhere.
As 1942 turned to 1943, the U.S. Army Air Forces had begun a daytime strategic bombardment plan meant to cripple the German war effort. High on the priority list: Destroying submarine production. In mid-March, Mark was transferred from the North Africa campaign to a unit in England. Upon arrival, he got to stop by Jack’s base to see him the night before a raid on the submarine marshalling yards at Vegesack, Germany. Jack, now a 1st lieutenant, was the lead bombardier for the 100-plane mission.
As lead bombardier on the mission, Jack’s accuracy was crucial — if his aim was off, the bombers following him would also be off-target. The crew of the Duchess initially encountered enemy fighter aircraft on the way to the target. Jack’s friend and fellow navigator, 1st Lt. Jesse H. Elliott, recalled that Jack had run out of ammunition at least twice because he had to pass him more throughout the flight.
The bomber had just started its first bomb run when intense anti aircraft fire exploded all around them. Jack, however, stayed focused. He opened the bomb bay doors and was seconds from dropping his bombs on the target 24,000 feet below when The Duchess was hit right across the nose. Jack was knocked about 9 feet to the back of the compartment. The explosion tore a large wound into his side and abdomen and shattered his right arm, nearly severing it above the elbow.
The bombardier was in terrible shape, but he knew the mission’s success depended on him. So — likely through sheer determination and willpower — he dragged himself back to his Norden bombsight and released the bombs.
According to a September 1943 Fort Worth Star-Telegram article, Jack’s crew was accustomed to hearing a celebratory “bombs away!” from him during missions. This time, they only heard a faint, “bombs….” before the intercom went silent. Jack died on top of his equipment, using his last act of strength to hit the switch to close the bomb bay. Jack Mathis, who was only 21 when he died, had flown 14 missions in his short career. He was the only crewmember of The Duchess to die during its 59 missions. Sadly, on May 14, 1943 — just two months after his brother’s passing — Mark’s bomber was shot down over the North Sea near Kiel, Germany. He was never heard from again, and his remains were never recovered.
Jack’s body was returned home and buried in Fairmount Cemetery in San Angelo, Texas. On Sept. 21, 1943, a ceremony was held at Goodfellow Field in San Angelo. On her middle son’s behalf, Avis Mathis received the Medal of Honor, as well as an Air Medal and Oak Leaf Cluster that Jack had earned on prior missions.
Jack’s Medal of Honor was the first awarded to an 8th Air Force airman. It is currently kept at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy over Vegesack, Germany on 18 March 1943. First Lt. Mathis, as leading bombardier of his squadron, flying through intense and accurate antiaircraft fire, was just starting his bomb run, upon which the entire squadron depended upon for accurate bombing, when he was hit by the enemy antiaircraft fire. His right arm was shattered above the elbow, a large wound was torn in his side and abdomen, and he was knocked from his bombsight to the rear of the bombardier’s compartment. Realizing that the success of the mission depended upon him, 1st Lt. Mathis, by sheer determination and willpower, though mortally wounded, dragged himself back to his sights, released his bombs, then died at his post of duty. As the result of this action the airplanes of his bombardment squadron placed their bombs directly upon the assigned target for a perfect attack against the enemy. First Lt. Mathis’ undaunted bravery has been a great inspiration to the officers and men of his unit.
BURIAL LOCATION: FAIRMOUNT CEMETERY, SAN ANGELO, TEXAS.
BLOCK 86, PLOT A, ROW 1, LOT 10.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE US AIR FORCE, WRIGHT-PATTERSON AFB, OHIO.